Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers crew chief David Comingdeer checks a truck before his crew leaves the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah, Okla., to protect tribal lands from wildfire in this 2010 photo. JAMI CUSTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX

CN Fire Rangers operate under minimal budget

Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers Isaac Merchant, front, and Tommy Green sharpen chainsaws prior to leaving the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah, Okla., to protect tribal lands from wildfire in this 2010 photo. JAMI CUSTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers Isaac Merchant, front, and Tommy Green sharpen chainsaws prior to leaving the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah, Okla., to protect tribal lands from wildfire in this 2010 photo. JAMI CUSTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers Isaac Merchant, front, and Tommy Green sharpen chainsaws prior to leaving the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah, Okla., to protect tribal lands from wildfire in this 2010 photo. JAMI CUSTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
BY Phoenix Archives
09/14/2012 08:31 AM
BY KEVIN SCRAPPER
Reporter

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - From January to September, the Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers responded to 157 fires within the tribe’s jurisdiction. But as the number of fires remain consistent with previous years, the Fire Rangers crew is down to a fraction of its previous workforce.

“Three years ago, I had about 10 to 12 men that I could work six to eight months out of the year, to put out these 200 to 300 fires that we have,” Fire Rangers crew chief David Comingdeer said. “Due to cuts and the lack of support to my department, next Tuesday (Sept. 4) we’ll be down to four firefighters and the same amount of fires to fight.”

The Fire Rangers are extensively trained and held to a higher standard than other firefighters in the area, Comingdeer said.

“We are the only federally qualified wild land firefighters in the Cherokee Nation,” he said. “We have lots of volunteer fire departments and lots of city fire departments, but none of them are federally qualified or equipped to fight wild land fire in the Cherokee Nation. They’re state-qualified, state-certified, not federal.”

Comingdeer added that he’s the program’s only full-time CN employee. The Bureau of Indian Affairs employs the other three members, but Comingdeer said it would be beneficial for the tribe to hire the men full time.

“We’ve tried to get them that way, to have Cherokee Nation hire these men to work here permanently. So far we haven’t had any luck doing that,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s budget restraints. I just don’t think that the right people have found out.”

Natural Resources Director Pat Gwin said federal funds allocated to the program have been cut in previous years.

“We used to get a far greater amount from the BIA,” said Gwin. “Our funding level has dropped from about $172,000 to the $56,000 that it is now. We are only able to conduct actual fire suppression activities upon the instruction and oversight of the bureau.”

Staffing is not the only problem the Fire Rangers face. Comingdeer said the program’s budget doesn’t include maintenance expenses for equipment or an operating base.

“It’s very difficult to fight fire the way we do because we don’t have a headquarters. We don’t have a building. We don’t have a place to park our equipment,” said Comingdeer. “Our equipment sits out in the heat and freezing cold all year long. Yet during fire season there is a big demand for us to perform at a federal level, with substandard funding.”

Gwin acknowledged that a building would be welcome, but again stated that funds aren’t’ there.

“It’s a non-tribal priority allocation program,” he said. “A lot of the money that the bureau dolls out in the annual funding agreement is called TPA, which means we have a certain amount of leeway as to how we can spend that. The preparedness fund, it comes down as a very specific line item. It says, you will maintain this truck, you will maintain an employee.”

Comingdeer also said the department’s importance is often overlooked, at least until it’s needed. However, Gwin said the tribe and non-tribal firefighters appreciate the Fire Rangers.

Oklahoma Forestry crew chief Dale Winkler said the Fire Rangers play a vital role in protecting tribal wild lands.

“I’ve worked with David as far as fighting wild land fires and they’ve been very helpful,” he said. “They help protect and preserve our wild lands, our forests out here and also the houses that surround them.”

Winkler said the amount of crew hands in which the Fire Rangers employ is much smaller than the crews he is accustomed to working with, particularly for the rapidly approaching fall fire season. He said his concern is for local communities, particularly in rural areas, because fires caused evacuations in Oklahoma during the summer.

“We could have another Luther or Drumright fire right here in Adair County or Cherokee County or Sequoyah County,” said Winkler. “In the Bell, Cave Springs and Lyon Switch areas we’ve got a lot of tribal homes there. They’re not easy to get to.”

kevin-scrapper@cherokee.org


918-453-5000 ext. 5903

News

BY JAMI MURPHY
Senior Reporter – @cp_jmurphy
05/27/2016 12:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – In April, the Tribal Council passed a law creating a judgment fund that would be used to pay for any judgment against the Cherokee Nation. “The judgment fund is modeled after the U.S. government judgment fund. What the premise of the idea is that Congress, which would be the council in our scenario, would appropriate money to a judgment fund. And they would do that based on what the risk may be out there any given year,” Attorney General Todd Hembree said. Hembree said it falls to the legislators because they appropriate monies for the tribe’s annual budget. “When there is a judgment against the Cherokee Nation…well that money would have to come from somewhere. So that means it would have to come from a budget that otherwise wasn’t intended for,” he said. “What a judgment fund does is an exercise in good government. The council knows and departments know that if there is a judgment, it comes out of this fund. It doesn’t affect any other budgets. They can plan…knowing that nothing is going to disrupt that.” Hembree said many governments have judgments funds and that it was time for the tribe to follow suit. As of publication, no monies were in the judgment fund but creating the fund was the first step, he said. “The legislation is passed. It’s been signed. So sometime in the next two to three months the council will need to make a determination of how much money to put in there and to appropriate that money,” he said. Departmental budgets are being submitted to the council, he said, so this is an opportune time to decide what should be placed within that fund. The Attorney General’s Office would certify any judgment, he said, whether it’s from the CN court system or another court against the CN. Once certified, he added, the tribal treasurer would pay the judgment out of the fund. “It’s not a first-come, first-served. No one party claimant can take more than half (of what is in the fund) any given fiscal year. You take up to half of it and then next year you take more or the other half of your judgment,” he said. “Or, at any time, just like any budget modification, the council can add more money into the judgment fund as the year goes on.” Any judgments following the date the fund was signed into law would be tied to receiving their payments through this fund. Having this fund, Hembree said, brings budgetary stability to the tribe. “We have departments that make an estimate of their expenditures for the next year. It just helps solidify that nothing’s going to come an disrupt, no judgment will come in and disrupt that next year’s budget…If there’s a judgment, it doesn’t have to come out of education’s budget or health. It comes out of the judgment fund,” he said. “They won’t have to worry…we’re taking that out of the equation.”
BY STAFF REPORTS
05/26/2016 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation donated $195,000 on May 26 to eight area Boys & Girls Clubs in northeastern Oklahoma. The organizations serve Cherokee and Native American students in their summer and afterschool programs. The CN gave checks to clubs in Adair, Sequoyah, Cherokee, Mayes, Nowata, Rogers, Delaware and Washington counties. Currently, the programs serve more than 10,000 students. “We remain a proud and consistent financial supporter of the mentoring work done by the Boys & Girls Clubs,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “Participating in the activities of a local club means access to community-based mentors and educational opportunities that will help our youth grow into their full potential. Supporting the mission of Boys and Girls Club is another opportunity where Cherokee Nation can have a positive influence in the lives of Cherokee children." The tribe has contributed more than $2 million total since 2008 to help the afterschool programs continue character and leadership development among both Cherokee youth and non-Native students. “The Boys & Girls Clubs provide an invaluable service to thousands of students within the Cherokee Nation,” Tribal Councilor Joe Byrd said. “These clubs provide a safe place for children to learn and grow, while also offering new experiences and a variety of hands-on activities. The Cherokee Nation is proud to partner with these eight clubs in order to enhance their programs for Cherokee and non-Cherokee students alike.” With the second-largest enrollment of any club in the CN, the Boys & Girls Club of Sequoyah County depends heavily on CN funding to maintain operations at the club’s six facilities in Sequoyah County. “Cherokee Nation’s support means a lot to the Boys & Girls Club of Sequoyah County. It enables us to continue to provide funding for our programs and kids that need us the most in the county,” Laura Kuykendall, Boys & Girls Club of Sequoyah County representative, said. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America serves more than 4 million young people throughout the country and on military bases worldwide. <strong>The CN donated to the following clubs.</strong> Organization-Enrollment-Award Amount Adair County- 1,181- $21,797.52 Bartlesville- 1,187- $21,908.66 Chelsea- 327- $6,035.49 Tahlequah- 4,325- $79,827.26 Delaware County- 926- $17,091.34 Green Country-Pryor- 420- $7,7502.01 Nowata- 669- $12,347.85 Sequoyah County- 1,530- $28,239.47
BY STAFF REPORTS
05/26/2016 10:45 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – According to a United Keetoowah Band press release, UKB Assistant Chief Joe H. Bunch was sworn in as principal chief during a May 25 ceremony held in the UKB Community Service Court Chambers. UKB District Judge Dewayne Littlejohn administered the oath of office to Bunch a day after the Tribal Council voted to remove former Principal Chief George Wickliffe from office during an impeachment process. “This is an unfortunate event, but we are going to move forward. Many of our members depend on our services and in what we do as elected officials. This is a good time to start the healing process. I expect nothing but the best as we move forward,” Bunch said after taking his oath. Bunch was elected in a 2014 special election to serve the final two years of the late Assistant Chief Charles Locust’s four-year term. With the removal of Wickliffe, Bunch now fills the principal chief’s role for the remainder of that four-year term. Wickliffe was elected to his third four-year term in November 2012. On May 24, UKB citizens listened to articles of impeachment against Wickliffe by Tahlequah District Rep. Anile Locust and Tribal Secretary Ella Mae Worley. Among the allegations against Wickliffe were: • Prohibited Worley and her predecessor, Shelbi Wofford, from having full access to the tribe’s financial records, its now-closed casino and nongaming businesses, • Signed multiple contracts without Tribal Council authorization, • Authorized almost $400,000 in cash advances to himself and Delaware District Rep. Jerry Hansen, Saline District Rep. Charles Smoke and Goingsnake District Rep. Willie Christie (Christie has since repaid the tribe), • Used a tribal credit card to pay his personal accounts with DirectTV, Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO) and Oklahoma Natural Gas, as well as at least two of his son’s bills, • Used a tribal credit card to reclaim at least three guns from a local pawn shop, • Used a tribal credit card to buy tires for three Tribal Councilors, plus a range top and air conditioning unit for a family member, • Provided himself with $5,000 in scholarship funds after the tribe curtailed its higher education program, • Allowed the UKB Corporate Authority Board to sell a $30,000 tribal vehicle to the late Assistant Chief Locust for $5,000, • Authorized the disbursement of more than $40,000 from the tribe’s general fund and more than $4,000 from the motor fuel fund to Charles Locust’s widow without Tribal Council approval, and • Allowed his personal secretary to apply for services that she was not eligible for, as well as drive a government-issued vehicle without a current driver’s license. Wickliffe initially balked when given the opportunity to respond to the charges. When he did accept a microphone, he said he could not be wholly blamed for the tribe’s financial straits since its casino closed in 2013 and would have returned the money if he had been asked. “I don’t owe the tribe anything,” he said. “Neither does the council. I didn’t know the United Keetoowah Band could do this.” The Tribal Council adjourned into executive session for 90 minutes before reconvening and voting 7-4 to remove Wickliffe from office for violating the UKB’s Constitution. The Tribal Council also barred him from holding an elected or appointed position within the tribe. Following the removal vote, Bunch ordered Wickliffe to turn in his office keys and tribal cell phone and was escorted out by UKB Lighthorse. Wickliffe has seven days from May 24 to file an appeal in the tribe’s court system. The next UKB election will be Nov. 7. All district representative, treasurer, secretary, assistant chief and principal chief positions will be open for election.
BY LENZY KREHBIEL-BURTON
Special Correspondent
05/25/2016 03:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – After a 90-minute executive session, the United Keetoowah Band’s Tribal Council on May 24 voted 7-4 to remove Principal Chief George Wickliffe from office. “Turn in your keys, walkie-talkie, radio and anything else you have,” Assistant Chief Joe Bunch said, drawing cheers from the standing room only crowd at the Jim Proctor Elder Community Center. Along with removal from office, Wickliffe was also barred for life from holding any elected or appointed positions within the tribe. [BLOCKQUOTE]Citing financial improprieties, the tribe’s treasurer, Ella Mae Worley, filed three articles of impeachment against Wickliffe earlier in the month. Among the allegations against Wickliffe contained within the three counts were: • Prohibited Worley and her predecessor, Shelbi Wofford, from having full access to the tribe’s financial records, its now-closed casino and nongaming businesses, • Signed multiple contracts without Tribal Council authorization, • Authorized almost $400,000 in cash advances to himself and Delaware District Rep. Jerry Hansen, Saline District Rep. Charles Smoke and Goingsnake District Rep. Willie Christie (Christie has since repaid the tribe), • Used a tribal credit card to pay his personal accounts with DirectTV, Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO) and Oklahoma Natural Gas, as well as at least two of his son’s bills, • Used a tribal credit card to reclaim at least three guns from a local pawn shop, • Used a tribal credit card to buy tires for three Tribal Councilors, plus a range top and air conditioning unit for a family member, • Provided himself with $5,000 in scholarship funds after the tribe curtailed its higher education program, • Allowed the UKB Corporate Authority Board to sell a $30,000 tribal vehicle to the late Assistant Chief Charles Locust for $5,000, • Authorized the disbursement of more than $40,000 from the tribe’s general fund and more than $4,000 from the motor fuel fund to Locust’s widow without council approval, and • Allowed his personal secretary to apply for services that she was not eligible for, as well as drive a government-issued vehicle without a current driver’s license. “I didn’t do this because I wanted to,” Worley said. “I did this because it is the right thing to do. This is the people’s money.” On all counts against Wickliffe, the Tribal Council reached a simple majority on each against him. However, as per the UKB Constitution, at least two-thirds of the Tribal Council had to vote for Wickliffe’s removal, as well as barring him from holding any elected or appointed position. Those voting for removal were Worley, Bunch, Secretary Joyce Hawk, Tahlequah District Rep. Anile Locust, Sequoyah District Rep. Barry Dotson, Illinois District Rep. Peggy Girty and Flint District Rep. Tom Duncan. The final officer to cast a vote for removal, Hawk silently deliberated for several minutes, eliciting calls of “Do the right thing” and other comments from the crowd. Hansen, Smoke, Christie and Canadian District Rep. Eddie Sacks voted against Wickliffe’s removal. Cooweescoowee District Rep. Clifford Wofford was absent. Wickliffe has seven days to file an appeal with the tribe’s judiciary. Elected to his third four-year term in November 2012, the now-former chief said little during the hearing and initially balked when given the opportunity to defend himself. When he did accept a microphone, he said he could not be wholly blamed for the tribe’s financial straits since its casino closed in 2013 and would have returned the money if he had been asked. “I don’t owe the tribe anything,” he said, eliciting jeers from the audience. “Neither does the council. I didn’t know the United Keetoowah Band could do this.” Escorted by Lighthorse officers, Wickliffe did not speak to reporters after the hearing.
BY STAFF REPORTS
05/25/2016 02:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee Nation officials donated $15,000 to the Hulbert Police Department earlier this month to help maintain the city’s fleet of police vehicles. Principal Chief Bill John Baker, Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden, Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Tribal Councilor Rex Jordan presented a check to Hulbert Police Chief Casey Rowe. “It’s important to help our communities, especially when it involves protecting residents and keeping neighborhoods in Hulbert safe,” Jordan, of Hulbert, said. “Sometimes city budgets can only go so far, so it’s great that the Cherokee Nation could help the city police department meet some of its needs.” The funds are from Tribal Councilors Jordan, David Walkingstick and Joe Byrd from Tribal Council law enforcement funds. “In this small community, donations help out a lot,” Rowe said. “It lets us show how safe our community can be with the Cherokee Nation’s help and we really appreciate this donation.”
BY STAFF REPORTS
05/25/2016 12:00 PM
HULBERT, Okla. – Cherokee Nation leaders celebrated the grand opening of the Hulbert Splash Pad with Hulbert city officials and law enforcement on May 16. The CN donated more than $50,000 over two years for park improvements, which includes building of the new splash pad and road paving to the park entrance. “In a community like Hulbert, the city park is the central location for youth activities, especially during the summer. Now, families will have a wonderful and safe environment for their kids to play, have fun and enjoy the new water features,” Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “The equipment means Cherokee kids will have a new opportunity, but so will all our friends and neighbors. These kinds of infrastructure improvements make northeast Oklahoma a great place to live and raise a family.” The Hulbert Splash Pad is at the Hulbert City Park on Main Street. “A small community like this has a limited amount of money and limited number of places to go to apply for funds,” said Hulbert Mayor Shirley Teague. “This would not be possible without the help of the Cherokee Nation and we could not be more appreciative.” A penny sales tax was passed by residents to also fund part of the park upgrades. “It’s great that our community can enjoy some of the same amenities that other cities do and I’m glad the Cherokee Nation could step up and lend a hand in accomplishing this goal with our community partners,” Tribal Councilor Rex Jordan said. The Hulbert Splash Pad is now open until Labor Day and is free.